A Very European Christmas


Special notes: Christmas Eve, soon after "Down to the Earth".

"You know," Father mused, sitting across the chessboard from his leonine son, "every year it seems to get quieter and quieter at this time in the evening."

Vincent's eyes remained on the board, planning his next move while he chuckled his agreement with his father. "And every year, we wonder if the children are learning their lesson, or if they're simply growing more skilled at the pretense of sleep."

Father laughed too. Indeed. Every year, on this magical night of Christmas Eve, the children settled down like the most well-behaved little cherubs ... all in the hopes of a jolly old elf bringing them presents. Even the older ones who'd given up on the myth, still marched along on their best behavior during these days leading up to Christmas morning. If only it could last all year.

"You've been very quiet tonight too, Vincent," the patriarch observed, sitting back thoughtfully in his chair. It was his turn in their game. Maybe he was just being philosophical, or maybe he was stalling for time.

Vincent nodded and took a deep breath. "Conserving my energy. There are many toys to take to the playrooms, once we're certain the children will stay put for the night."

"Small talk isn't usually that exhausting," Father countered with a wry grin By now, the boy should know better than trying to hide the obvious. "She ... did say she would come visit tomorrow, didn't she?"

The reference was obvious. Relative to Vincent, the word 'she' could only mean his Catherine. -- -- The one he was missing this quiet Christmas Eve.

Vincent nodded solemnly, his eyes still glued to the safety of the board. The game was nearly over ... he knew which moves would bring him yet another victory over his father. What he preferred not to reveal, however, was the melancholy he was certain could be read on his face.

She had things to do during this holiday season. He knew that. Her own father, in particular, was deserving of her time. As she'd begun to spend more time with the tunnel community -- and with Vincent in particular -- it was her friends and family above who lost some of her attention. On Christmas, her father deserved to have that rectified, and it was with Vincent's encouragement that she'd planned these days around her remaining family. She was seeing a cousin today, along with her father and his current partner. And tomorrow, the father would have his daughter again for an old fashioned Christmas.

It really shouldn't have bothered Vincent ... he knew that. She would come by tomorrow afternoon, just as she'd promised. In the meantime, he would enjoy Christmas as always with his own family. -- -- The carols and music recital the children had performed this evening. The joy that would fill the community playrooms the next morning as the children opened their gifts. The traditional Christmas brunch that would bring the entire community together soon after. Nothing, really, would be different, except that a small part of him would wish for his beloved's presence. A hole that had never been there other years.

"That's less than twenty-four hours from now, you realize," Father pointed out, trying to hide a small smile of amusement. Witnessing loss on his son's face, in and of itself, was obviously not something to take lightly. But that the boy, after all these years, had the opportunity to be in such a position in the first place ... that, the patriarch was coming to realize, was a good thing. And furthermore -- although he had yet to inform Vincent -- this more than solidified his decision to invite Catherine to the upcoming Winterfest celebration. At least his son wouldn't be left to mope through that event too.

"I know," Vincent agreed, finally looking up. Unlike his father, his grin required some conscious effort. "And I will be in better spirits tomorrow. I promise. When the children ... ..."

He stopped, his brow creasing in surprised concentration.


For the first time in over an hour, the son's smile became genuine. "I could be wrong," ... he shook his head ... "but I think she's approaching."


As unbelievable as it was, he was right. His sense of her, above all else, always seemed to be right. And by the time he reached the tunnel entrance below her apartment, she had already stepped out from that wonderful cone of light.

"Have I told you recently, how easily you resemble an angel?" he greeted with transparent honesty. "Especially tonight, of all nights?"

"I believe you've mentioned something like that in the past," she demurred modestly, taking his hand as she approached. In her other hand, she carried a small bag ... best left for later.

His smile grew even higher once her fingers were twining into his. "You were to be with your father tonight," he commented, trying to sound as though he were gently chastising her for abandoning her family plans. His happiness however, refused to be masked.

"We had dinner," she replied. "Father, Kay and I. Then an evening of eggnog and Christmas music. It was very nice and very festive ... ... and I kept wondering how the children's recital was going down here."

A little white lie? Maybe. At least in omission ... failing to mention how often her mind had pondered her beloved's evening specifically. She wanted to share some of this night's magical time with him. It was that simple, even if she wouldn't admit it.

Vincent studied her silently, suspecting the truth, then cast her an especially affectionate glance. "They did wonderfully," he finally answered. "The recital went smoothly, and they're now retired to their rooms with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. I believe that's how the poem goes."

Catherine chuckled, only able to imagine the glee that would come in the morning. "And the rest of the evening? Is Father still awake?"

Her beau nodded, understanding the hidden message. She was free to spend some time, if he wished it ... he needn't feel reluctant to ask. "Much of the community is still awake, many finishing preparations for tomorrow. Would you join me for a pot of tea, Catherine?"


Their tea was actually shared in Father's study, with the patriarch's inclusion. He was, to say the least, pleased to see the upswing in his son's demeanor. It wasn't that many months ago that this pair had nearly parted ... threatening that it be so permanently. But now, sitting across the table from them, it was difficult to believe the incident had ever happened. Their fit together was ... well ... uniquely good, even if it had taken the father a while to see it.

It was under that impetus that Father excused himself earlier than necessary, explaining that he would require extra rest for the day ahead. "I'm not getting any younger," he joked off-handedly. "Every Christmas, the children seem more and more difficult to keep up with. Vincent," ... he turned to his son ... "you'll take care of moving the gifts to trees in the playrooms?"

The son nodded and glanced at his beloved in turn. "Of course. Perhaps you would like to assist, Catherine? The pile has already been amassed, including the gifts you brought the other day. They need only be arranged into the playrooms for the morning. It shouldn't take long."

"Playing Santa?" she laughed as the eyes of both men turned to her. She was sorely, sorely tempted to ask if she would be playing 'Mrs. Claus' to Vincent's 'Santa', but thought better of risking an awkward moment. "I'd love to."

"Good, good," replied Father in satisfaction. "I'll be off then. ... ... Goodnight. And Merry Christmas, dear Catherine."

"Merry Christmas to you too," she answered, giving the patriarch’s hand an affectionate squeeze. Then the couple watched as Vincent's father adjourned to his room.

"If you don't mind," Vincent began, as soon as they were alone, "I'd like to visit my chamber first." ... ... His eyes lowered bashfully for a moment. ... ... "I ... have something I'd like to give you. For Christmas."

A mischievous grin spread across Catherine's face, and she tapped the bag sitting silently on the table beside her. "I have something for you too."

Confidence rose in his eyes again. Yes, he'd suspected as much. What a wonderful Christmas Eve it was turning out to be.


"I hope you like it," Catherine commented, retrieving a shiny, gold foil wrapped box from her bag and handing it to her beau. They were barely back in his chamber, but she could wait no longer.

He took it gently from her fingers, holding it carefully between the claws and work-roughened hands. Truth be told, he liked it already. First and foremost, simply because it was her. But also, with added amazement, for the care she'd put into it.

Presents for the children were always wrapped brightly, even here below. No childhood should miss out on that magic. But Vincent's childhood was long past, and like most adults, such extravagances weren't always forthcoming. But with Catherine ... with his beloved ... ... ... just as she was always so well-coiffed for him, even on their dates beneath concert stages in the park, so too had the little box been turned into a thing of delightful beauty. He almost hated to open it.

"Go on," she coaxed, making him finally obey. He did, carefully slicing open the tape with his nails. And as he did so, he could swear he heard a pinging noise.

"Oh Catherine ... it's lovely." Gingerly, he at last lifted a shining, sterling silver bell from a bed of red tissue paper within the box. Free from its confines, the clapper sang out an impromptu stanza.

"When we were reading Elizabeth Barrett-Browning the other night, I told you I'd once been to her grave. Stood only yards from the legend herself. It's in Florence, Italy. I made the trip in my college years, when I was trying to find my wings. That's where I found this bell. See?" ... gently, she touched the name of the Italian city, engraved elegantly along the bell's lip.

Her finger slipping away from the bell, she gazed warmly at her beloved, enjoying the sparkle in his eyes reflected back by the brightly polished silver. "It should be yours. I have new wings now. Wings that I like much better. ... ... And besides ... it's just one of the many places I so deeply wish I could show you. So if you can't go there, I'll bring it to you." Her voice dropped, and she bravely, silently, insisted that he meet her eyes. "I'd bring everything to you, if I could."

... ... Yes, Vincent understood, replying with a sincere, heart-felt, "I know that, dearest Catherine." From anyone else, it might have sounded like pity, or even hyperbole. From her, it was genuine. A most basic desire, offered and received mutually, each from their own world. The result of a most basic love. ... ... There was much he longed to give her too. Especially those gifts of himself.

Another heartbeat passed before he forced his attention away. "It will be a very European Christmas, I dare say," he stated, placing the bell carefully on his nightstand, then reaching toward a shelf to retrieve another box. This one was white, bound in a simple red bow.

"Take a seat," he coaxed, motioning toward the bed. "This is, I'm afraid, a rather delicate object."

Catherine obeyed, perching on the blanket. She took the box from his hands, opening it carefully as he sat down beside her. Inside, swaths of velvet seemed to wrap endlessly around a center core. Apparently he wasn't kidding ... whatever it was, was bundled and cushioned with remarkable care.

She freed it from the box, laying it on the bed and unrolling the cloth to find -- -- two glass birds. Each on its own stand ... one holding a pink flower in its beak, the other, a golden leaf.

"One of our helpers has a grandfather who emigrated from Vienna," Vincent explained, elaborating on his earlier comment. "A kind man, who honored my special request."

"Doves?" she cooed happily, studying each in turn. The candlelight absolutely danced across the curves of clear, clean glass.

"Turtle doves, to be precise."

And she laughed. "For the song! The twelve days of Christmas!"

Vincent tilted his head slightly, offering at least partial agreement as he reveled in this image of his beloved, turning the first figurine gingerly between her fingertips. "Among ... other reasons." he finally admitted thoughtfully.

If it was a hint toward other, unspoken words, she didn't catch it. Maybe that was good. Maybe that was bad. Either way, she was already spinning her own plans. ... ...

"They're wonderful, Vincent. But, could we keep one of them down here? One with me and one with you?" Her smile softened with implication. "So we can share them? So each will know that its partner is also loved and protected? ... ... ... They would ... understand us, I think."

It was, he agreed, a touching sentiment. That they would share the beauty of these birds, even when apart, seemed almost a parable for the deeper love they'd shared for months. But there was, however, a significance that lay beyond.

"These birds should remain together, Catherine."... ... One set of furred fingers stroked gently over the glass bird nestled on its velvet bed. He would say these words because they had been in his thoughts from the moment he'd made his special request of the helper. Even if he couldn't bring himself to look at her, he would say these words exactly as he'd promised himself. ... ... "These are turtle doves. They take a mate for life."

... ...

Silence in the chamber. Even the ubiquitous clanging of the pipes seemed to have hushed in deference to this special evening. -- -- Or maybe, just to this moment.

Catherine swallowed, consciously taking her next breath. On the surface, it was nothing more than an observation on one of nature's more innocent species. And in the end, it could always be attributed to the whimsy of the occasion. ... ... But she knew. ... ... The truth was never far behind this couple. Her own suggestion had drawn the parallel, and Vincent had stretched it into the future. A glimpse of a possibility.

Carefully, she returned the second bird to the velvet. Then her hand crept toward her beau's ... seeking its rightful mate, just like the doves. "Then you're right," she agreed. "They shouldn't be parted. ... ... Some unions should never be parted."

Feminine fingers found furred feline ones, just as his eyes returned to hers. She more than 'knew'. She understood. And she agreed, most profoundly. He could see it, and it managed to thrill, relieve, and terrify him all at the same time. Both the risk, and the impact, of a future he could feel them both reaching for.

"You must be careful with them," he urged. "They will shatter easily. Even together, they will shatter easily."

Catherine nodded, then freed herself from his stare in order to fold the doves back into their velvet. If he was frightened that she might allow them to break ... ... or worse yet, allow him to break ... ... he needn't be. "I know how to guard things of value," she assured him. "Especially things of value that have come from you."

Vincent sat back, still watching as she placed the birds back into their box. And for possibly the first time in his life, he witnessed true safety. It could have been his own beating heart wrapped in that velvet swath, and he would not have feared. A gift for this Christmas, truly beyond his deepest wishes.

"I'll leave them here," she stated, closing the lid, "while we go move those gifts as Father requested. They'll be all right." ... She moved the box a few more inches across the safety of the mattress, just for good measure. And when she looked back up at her hoped for mate, she was smiling. "They have each other."

Vincent's smile grew likewise, unabashedly happy with the evening's turn of events. "Indeed they do," he agreed, taking her hand and rising from the bed. "Quite definitely, indeed they do."